The Curious Cultural Case Of “Harriet”

Cynthia Erivo (left) stars as Harriet Tubman in a biopic about the famous Black abolitionist. Also pictured is actress and singer-songwriter Janelle Monae.

We need more Black representation in film. So why are Black folks talking about boycotting a film of an icon?

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. 

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman. 

To the naked eye, those depictions seem innocent and adequate enough, especially with a trailer as captivating and compelling as the one for “Harriet,” which released July 23.

Yet there are calls to #BoycottHarriet because Erivo’s lineage — British and Nigerian — doesn’t match up with the American-born Tubman. 

It’s a conversation that involves far more than movie roles and how Hollywood chooses to portray Black folks. It’s a necessary dialogue that inquires about the role of Pan-Africanism in the struggle for Black equality in America.

“All people of African descent, whether they live in North or South America, the Caribbean, or in any part of the world are Africans and belong to the African nation.” — Kwame Nkrumah

Nkrumah was more than the first Prime Minister and President of Ghana. He was a revolutionary who not only advocated Pan-Africanism, but he led the Gold Coast to independence from Britain in 1957.

His commentary about “all people of African descent” comes from his 1970 book, “Class Struggle in Africa,” which talks about capitalist exploitation and the relationship between race and class struggle, among other profound topics relating to the struggle of Africans worldwide. His criticism of the “bourgeoisie” is similar to those same criticism made by civil rights standards Dr. King and Malcolm X.

Years prior, in 1957, when Ghana declared its independence from Britain, Nkrumah invited Africans from all over the world to the country in the spirit of Pan-Africanism. The folks who answered the call included the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Louis Armstrong and Brother Malcolm, who was so profoundly impressed with Nkrumah in their meetings and dialogues that he named his Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964 after the one Nkrumah established in 1963.

“When we say Afro-American, we include everyone in the Western Hemisphere of African descent. South America is America. Central America is America. South America has many people in it of African descent.” — Malcolm X

To be clear, Pan-Africanism is a worldwide movement that advocates and pushes for solidarity between groups indigenous to Africa and those of African descent. Tubman herself has roots in Ghana, and two of her great grand-nieces made the trip there in 2005, where Tubman was honored with a festival and various honors.

The “diaspora wars” that take place in media — social media, primarily — can be found with a simple hashtag: #ADOS. The ADOS stands for American Descendants of Slavery. More information is available at, but the essence of their fight can be found in this passage on the website:

“ADOS … seeks to reclaim/restore the critical national character of the African American identity and experience, one grounded in our group’s unique lineage, and which is central to our continuing struggle for social and economic justice in the United States.”

That lineage is important to ADOS — so much so, in fact, that they are part of those individuals on social media who are threatening to #BoycottHarriet.

It’s easy to dismiss ADOS founders Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore as “trolls.” That assessment is likely unfair, based in their important work that addresses race-based wealth inequalities and the need for cash reparations for slavery.

Likewise, the history of Pan-Africanism suggests that boycotting isn’t the answer, either. Movies such as “Harriet” and one of its predecessors starring Cicely Tyson, “A Woman Named Moses,” can inspire constructive conversations that ask the tough question of how far we have truly come in the struggle for Black progress.

And still, there is room for criticism.

In a 2015 interview with the New York Times, Erivo criticized British media for boxing out Black female talent.

“The thing that disturbs me the most, being in England, is that on the screen, we don’t see very many of us — there aren’t very many Black girls,” Erivo said. “They don’t make the roles for us, or they don’t see us in those roles.” 

She continued: “I don’t think it’s different to be a Black girl in England than it is to be a Black girl in America. We all collectively share in a pain of displacement and not feeling like we quite belong in places.” Oyelowo, for his part, has expressed similar concerns.

If Erivo and those of her lineage adhere to these ideals and concerns, then there needs to be a spirit of solidarity between actors which highlight the struggles of Black actors — regardless of lineage — in Hollywood. At the same time, if Erivo is going to take on the role of an icon, she has to rise above hurtful colloquialisms such as the one she expressed in a 2013 tweet:

“…(ghetto american accent) baby u know I gatchu imma sing It To you but I still gotta do wadigattado, you feel me…”

We need less of the 2017 squabbles between Samuel L. Jackson and “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya. We need more of the spirit of Pan-Africanism that not only respects similar struggles, but the willingness to stand together in those struggles. It is a cry for help by Black Americans — descendants of slaves — that has long gone unheard.

That type of nuance will not only serve all of us in the African diaspora when it comes to media representation and the fight against Hollywood, but also in our political representation when it comes to speaking up on behalf of Black people against an oppressive establishment.

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